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Analysis

California Voters Will Have the Chance to Restore Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands

The legislature has approved a referendum on whether people on parole can vote.

Protest­ers across the coun­try are demand­ing an end to police brutal­ity and systemic racism in the wake of George Floy­d’s murder by the police. Many of them will also be head­ing to the polls to seek these changes through voting. But in many states, those who have been most impacted by wide­spread racial bias in our justice system will not be allowed to join them because of unjust and discrim­in­at­ory crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws.

But now there’s an oppor­tun­ity for improve­ment in Cali­for­nia, where a bipar­tisan state senate vote Wednes­day placed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment on the ballot in Novem­ber that would restore the right to vote to people on parole. It’s called ACA 6, and voters approv­ing it would build on the momentum around the coun­try for giving voting rights back to Amer­ic­ans convicted of crimes. Just last week in Iowa — the last state that still perman­ently bars every­one with convic­tions from voting — the governor pledged to undo this undemo­cratic policy.

Currently, Cali­for­nia is one of a very small hand­ful of states that prohibit people on parole from voting but allows people on proba­tion to vote. As a result, there are over 50,000 Cali­for­ni­ans living in and contrib­ut­ing to their communit­ies who are unable to vote. And because people of color in the state are more likely than white people to be arres­ted, prosec­uted, convicted, and incar­cer­ated, they are disen­fran­chised at dispro­por­tion­ately higher rates too. This means that Cali­for­ni­a’s disen­fran­chise­ment law dispro­por­tion­ately mutes the polit­ical voices of communit­ies of color, further margin­al­iz­ing those that are already under­rep­res­en­ted.

This is the case across the coun­try, and there is a deep and troub­ling history of racism driv­ing crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws. Indeed, the same over-poli­cing of Black communit­ies that is being protested today is part of a centur­ies-old design meant to silence the voices of Black citizens. After the Civil War and the expan­sion of suffrage to Black men, states enacted “Jim Crow” laws designed to prevent them from exer­cising polit­ical power.

These laws were not limited to the South. Cali­for­ni­a’s 1879 consti­tu­tion provided that “no native of China, no idiot, insane person, or person convicted of any infam­ous crime” could vote. And just nine years before that consti­tu­tion was adop­ted, the state refused to ratify the 15th Amend­ment, which prohib­ited voting restric­tions based on race. Cali­for­ni­a’s first governor even attemp­ted to ban Black people from the state.

The differ­ing eligib­il­ity rules between people on proba­tion and people on parole causes confu­sion among both voters and elec­tions offi­cials. As a result, many Cali­for­ni­ans who are in fact eligible to vote, includ­ing Snoop Dogg, don’t know they are or refrain from voting out of fear of break­ing the law. Such “de facto disen­fran­chise­ment” leads to further depressed elect­oral parti­cip­a­tion in the communit­ies that bear the brunt of police viol­ence and systemic racism.

Although Cali­for­ni­a’s disen­fran­chise­ment policy has shut out many of those impacted by the crim­inal justice system from the state’s polit­ical process, that hasn’t stopped them from lead­ing the fight to pass ACA 6. Like similar move­ments in Flor­idaIowaConnecti­cutKentucky, and New Jersey, key coali­tion members and organ­iz­a­tion lead­ers who star­ted the effort in Cali­for­nia have them­selves been deprived of their right to vote.

Wednes­day’s super­ma­jor­ity vote by the state senate to move the meas­ure forward should be celeb­rated as a signi­fic­ant step towards address­ing the racial discrim­in­a­tion that remains part of Cali­for­ni­a’s consti­tu­tion and other insti­tu­tions. It comes the same week as the anniversary of Richard­son v. Ramirez, a notori­ous Supreme Court decision find­ing that the U.S. Consti­tu­tion permits state crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws.

Now, with this propos­i­tion on the ballot, Cali­for­nia voters will have the rare chance to use their vote to expand demo­cracy. Hope­fully, it will be the last elec­tion in which their friends, family, and neigh­bors on parole will not have a say in the future of their state.